Updated: Mar 8
Brian Lobel grew up in New York. As a teenager, he had set his sights on taking part in his state choir, but only the best could get there. He had to score 98/100, a near-perfect score, in the entry audition - but he was confident. He was one of the best, even if he wasn’t the best of the best, his name was always mentioned in their presence. And he was singing Amarilli, Mia Bella - from the collection 24 Italians Songs & Arias, for medium high voice. It was perfect for him.
He scored 94. Not exactly a failure, and the panel did praise his excellent Italian pronunciation, but not enough. Agonisingly close, but not close enough. It was enough to knock Brian’s confidence, and he never sang that song again.
With a huge scroll depicting his score ’94/100’ unfurled behind him, Lobel conducts us through the show: 24 Italian Songs & Arias. It explores failure, and questions why we are so uncomfortable acknowledging its often intense ramifications. As the cast go through their various failures - to get Arts Council funding, to reach the state choir, to finish their Masters recital - I reflected on my own rejections, my own near-misses, my own what-could-have-beens. And in doing so, I was encouraged to consider how those failures are felt in my body. Do we, like acclaimed soprano and co-creator of the show Gweneth Ann-Rand, bounce back because we have to, because we have to be better, and do better or do we stop in our tracks like (the fantastic) Allyson Devinish, who never played solo piano again after an early setback?
Lobel is irresistible as the show’s compere, effortlessly charming and warm, with the power to get an audience onside with one wry smile and a quick witticism. There are moments of real poignancy too, with Brian’s excellent Italian pronunciation given space to shine in the show’s most disarming moment.
I’m not ashamed to admit I had a little cry as these artists of the highest order admitted to feeling like failures. Contralto Naomi Felix’s story is particularly touching to hear - as she drifted away from opera over the last twenty years, it is galvanising to hear the direction in which she is drifting now.
It’s also only fair to mention the wonderful Joshua Furtado-Mendes, who stepped in to the role of Young Brian at the last minute (Covid is still causing problems) - to show us what a voice, pre-failure, sounds like - and it sounds soaring.
At a time when other people’s successes are front and centre of our social feeds, it’s easy to feel alone in failure. This show proves just how beautiful they can be. I really can't recommend it enough; it achieves that rare concoction of a warm, funny, gentle, and kind performance, without ever falling into self-indulgence.
And the ending? God. Just you wait.
24 Italian Songs and Arias is at Battersea Arts Centre until 19th
March, all tickets Pay What You Can. For access information and
tickets, click here.
Photo by Christa Holka